by Rich Rubenstein on July 1, 2013 · 8 comments

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Richard E. Rubenstein
School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Why are we seeing so many massive street revolts in electoral democracies like Turkey, Brazil, Egypt, Israel, Russia, Chile, and – last year, at least – the United States? The New York Times’ columnist Thomas L. Friedman asks the question and then almost answers it. Almost, but not really, since the author of The World is Flat is led astray, as is his wont, by a deeply uncritical appreciation of the effects of global corporate capitalism.

Even so, in a nation whose academic experts seem unable even to ask this question, much less answer it, Friedman at least provides a starting point. Three factors, says he, are responsible for the upsurge in street demonstrations. Politically, we witness “the rise and proliferation of illiberal ‘majoritarian’ democracies.” Economically, “middle-class workers are being squeezed between a shrinking welfare state and a much more demanding job market.” And technologically, we have “the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, Twitter, Facebook, and blogging.”

Not bad. One has to admire Friedman’s decision not to picture the street revolts as exotic manifestations of Third World immaturity or as the result of some other single factor. But the edifice he has constructed is shaky, to say the least.

Politics: Egypt and Turkey may be “illiberal majoritarian democracies,” but Brazil and the United States are not, nor are nations like Greece, Spain, and Portugal, which the columnist does not mention despite recent massive street protests. Friedman’s error here is to focus on a particular form of government, when what is germane is a relationship between government and society. Where social divisions run very deep, as they do in the countries that have experienced major street revolts, all “majoritarian democracies”seem illberal. Serious conflicts between alienated social classes, ethnic groups, generations, or religious and secular forces cannot be resolved through ordinary political processes, democratic or otherwise. This sort of crisis is constitutional in the sense that working out deep differences is a precondition for establishing any form of legitimate and workable government.

This is why it makes little sense, in my view, to blame Turkey’s Erdogan or Egypt’s Morsi for not being more conciliatory toward their defeated opponents. Mere gestures will be viewed by the opposition as . . . mere gestures, while the majority will consider significant concessions a betrayal of the people. More than conciliation is needed. As Brazil’s Dilma Roussef alone seems to recognize, a renegotiation of the social contract – a constituent assembly or other constitutional gathering — is what is required. The job of the conflict resolver, in situations like this, is to convince all major parties, especially the electoral victors, that they will not be able to enjoy their power without a process of thoroughgoing national reconciliation.

Economics: Friedman is quite right to emphasize the economic causes of the street revolts, although the story he tells – that of working people, losing welfare benefits, who cannot meet the new demands of the high-tech job market – has by now been thoroughly discredited. The notion that this particular “structural” issue accounts for most unemployment and economic insecurity has been refuted by economists like nobelist Paul Krugman, who rails against what he calls the “structural obsession” ( Nor is there anything inevitable about the decline of the welfare state or commonsensical about the need for austerity.

In fact, what workers from Turkey and Egypt to Southern Europe, Latin America, and the United States have been dealing with is a long-term capitalist crisis that has depressed wages, deepened poverty, exacerbated social and cultural divisions, annihilated small farms and businesses, enriched a plutocratic minority, and driven the Gini coefficient of inequality to levels not seen since before the Great Depression of the 1930s. Initially, those feeling most outraged by the failures of economic opportunity were those with high expectations based on their youth, level of education, and (pace Friedman) technical skills. But the greatly increased number of protestors attacking austerity regimes, demanding jobs, and advocating that infrastructures be modernized suggest that the protests are moving beyond the “middle-class workers” to include a more heterogeneous population.

Technology: As Friedman says, citing Leon Aron, use of smartphones and the social media has shortened the “turnaround time” between grievance and action. Well, yes. Personal technological devices are also a marker of relatively youthful and privileged protest groups and – as recent exposes make clear – a source of information and potential social control on the part of the authorities. But, technology aside, what is the likely direction of these unforeseen street protests?

The Times columnist concludes his analysis by remarking, rather complacently, that democracies will probably be “more volatile than ever.” But what we need to know is whether the revolts will continue to reflect the (still relatively unformed) feelings and demands of ambitious, middle-class urbanites, or whether they will expand to embrace the urban poor and workers beyond the capital, as well as people struggling to survive in the rural districts and small towns of these highly divided societies.

Another way to state the alternative is: reform or revolution? Street protests, in their current incoherent form, are an invitation to “authoritarian democrats” like Erdogan and Morsi to contemplate minimal reforms as a way of attempting to buy time and improve public relations. To the extent that protestors come into contact with the realities of deepening social divisions, the limitations of neo-liberal economic development, and the incapability of politics-as-usual to emancipate their people, however, the question of revolution – and the possibility of a nonviolent reconstruction of their societies – will be posed. Meanwhile, in the United States, it will not take much, I think, for a movement of mass resistance inspired by other protests to revive.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Wayne July 1, 2013 at 11:07 pm

Very nice essay and analysis Richard, as usual.

I think that one of the biggest factors keeping a lid on protests in the US is the presidency of Barack Obama. Its like the anti-war movement pretty much disappeared with Obama’s election even though truth be told there has not been the dramatic reversal we all expected / wanted / hoped for. The election of the first African American in US history has served to mitigate social protests despite the fact that the gap between rich and poor continues to grow as noted in your essay (Gini coefficiency). The fact is the Occupy Wall Street folks were right – but little is happening to change anything. I think that, ironically, had Senator McCain or Governor Romney been elected we might have had even greater protests that might have helped create the conditions which could lead to significant social changes.


CRM July 2, 2013 at 5:12 am

You have left off your list the riots in the UK in the summer of 2011. Of course, the current government in London is hardy a “majoritarian” one; it’s a minority, far right Tory government propped up by a so-called centrist clique whose political reward consists of sundry political offices with little influence over policy. The Lib-Dems will get their reward at the next election, which unfortunately will merely add to the list of unemployed.
The real ragedy of governments throughout the EU is the abandonment of any commitment to full employment – the Holy Grail of government policy for 30 years after World War II – in favour for a search for a “balanced” budget via monetary policies which have been proved not to work. Somebody in power needs to re-read Keynes.


Bob Griendling July 3, 2013 at 1:46 am

Well said, Rich. And I agree that BHO has muffled protests. But whether it is Brazil, Turkey, Eygpt or USA, the protests need to begin to articulate specifics. Otherwise, they lose potential allies who grow weary and resigned.


Rich Rubenstein July 3, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Thanks, Bob! I take your point — but the question of specifics can be a bit tricky, since radical changes are needed, and divided societies need to come to agreement on their scope and shape. So I think we need to do two things: (1) suggest substantive changes to get people thinking about them; (2) organize interactive, problem-solving forums at which these proposals and other people’s ideas can be discussed and agreements arrived at. Example: How to increase social equality? Ideas: Guarantee every American a job and a minimum annual income; enforce a ratio of 1:20 between the lowest and highest rates of compensation in any enterprise in interstate commerce . . . Let’s break the taboo of silence about such topics!


Greg Stanton July 4, 2013 at 9:40 pm

Excellent essay, as usual, Rich.
The problem is the entire nation-state system that dominated the twentieth century and cost at least 170 million lives in genocides and world wars. Are there other alternatives? The World Federalists have advocated them for years, though they have no practical plan to make their plans reality. (They were, however, the key to creating the ICC.)
Nation-states have been taken over by corporate elites that buy the politicians. The average citizen has little or no voice. The problem is that if a US Constitutional convention were called today it would probably produce something worse than what we have. And the same applies to the UN Charter, which directly reflects the nation-state system, and cannot be changed without the agreement of the global giants, which is unlikely to happen. So we chip away at the crimes against humanity perpetrated by so many governments, including our own. The next step is an Optional Protocol to the Rome Treaty of the International Criminal Court to create a well-armed international police service with the jurisdiction to arrest people charged by the ICC, no matter where they are. It couldn’t be blocked by the UN, and is in complete accord with international law.


Rich Rubenstein July 4, 2013 at 9:48 pm

Greg is certainly right about the nation state system. Problem is, if we got a world government, what would make it more than an overgrown nation state? I think we have to be looking constantly at the relationship between property, production, participation, and government. Bit by bit, we’re getting a kind of global government — i.e., rule by the G8, with China and India as junior partners. What makes all such developments problematic is the absence of participation and control, economic and political, by ordinary working people. Imagine if all the potential of the “information revolution” were used to make THIS a reality!


Greg Stanton July 4, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Rich is right. And the World Federalists do not advocate Global government. In fact such an entity would become a monster.
Instead they have very well thought through the principle of subsidiarity, in which decisions that affect people are kept as close to them as possible. We would probably have many more governments than today, but with limited powers. Today the Commonwealth of Virginia won’t let us build the roads we need in northern Virginia. What if we renegotiated our state constitution to give more power to localities? What if suburbs of Virginia could tax developers for cutting down trees? What if our military-industrial complexes were cut back to the era of local, county, and state police forces? It is a dream far away. But eventually the tyrannies will fall in Russia and China and North Korea, and the information revolution will allow people to develop all kinds of new forms of relationships.


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